President Trump is giving police forces weapons of war. This is dangerous
“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” – James Madison, Constitutional Convention (1787).
Our Founders opposed using a standing army to patrol our streets, and for good reason. While most of America is rightfully focused on the destructive path left in the wake of tropical storm Harvey this week, Donald Trump lifted the ban on certain military-grade weapons and equipment available from the Pentagon to our local police forces across the nation.
Trump’s unwise and ill-considered executive order reopening the floodgates of free surplus military-grade weaponry (as reported on CNN) from war zones across the world straight onto the streets of American cities, towns and university campuses, is the fulfillment of a campaign promise to the law enforcement lobby.
It is not just bad policy – it’s dangerous.
Before Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 limiting the transfer of certain types of military equipment under the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, the Department of Defense transferred more than $5bn in surplus military equipment directly to police agencies across the nation.
Because of lax oversight, some of the equipment has gone missing or been sold, possibly falling into the hands of wrongdoers.
The Pentagon program creates a pipeline that bypasses normal city council and county commission procurement processes, enabling police departments to acquire expensive-to-maintain and often unneeded military equipment directly from the Pentagon without the approval or even knowledge of government officials elected by citizens.
This is undemocratic and cedes too much power to unelected bureaucrats. The citizens are left to pay the price when these military “toys” are put into the anxious hands of often untrained local law enforcement.
What makes it dangerous is the fact that this program requires that the equipment be “placed into use” within 12 months of being acquired. The use of military-grade weapons at an inappropriate time by an untrained police officer is a recipe for disaster, as evidenced by the Ferguson police department’s response to non-violent protesters after the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
Handing our police weapons of war, including but not limited to large-capacity, rapid-fire weapons and ammunition – including .50-calibers – bayonets, grenade launchers, armored vehicles including military tanks, unmanned vehicles (armed drones), explosives and pyrotechnics, and similar explosive devices, makes us less safe.
It also drives a wedge between police officers and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. Militarization runs counter to concepts of community policing, and hurts efforts to bridge the growing chasm between police and our communities.
Trump’s reckless action highlights why Congress must pass my bill – the bipartisan Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2017 (SMLEA), HR 1556 – which would restore civilian authority over law enforcement by shutting down the direct pipeline between Department of Defense and law enforcement for certain types of military-grade weaponry.
The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act would limit the requirements that incentivize law enforcement to use the equipment. It would also require that recipients account for all military weapons and equipment, create enforcement mechanisms to better monitor and control the transfer of equipment and require the Pentagon to take back weapons from state and local law enforcement agencies that are being investigated by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations.
Our nation was built on the principle that there are clear lines between our armed forces and domestic police. Moreover, just like the military, law enforcement is subject to civilian authority. This program blurs those lines.
It’s time for Americans to stop and take notice of the creeping militarization our streets before it changes the character of our country forever. Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent. It’s time to stop militarizing law enforcement before it’s too late.